FIFA: Infantino & The Blatter Playbook

by | Oct 10, 2016

Nothing’s changed. All current Fifa stories, emerging and on-going, could have been written almost anytime this century, simply by replacing “Infantino” with “Blatter.” If The Who’s Pete Townshend could charge for using the line “meet the new boss, same as the old boss,” in these stories, he could buy Fifa (too?). Current president Gianni Infantino has played roles of sorts in controversies in all Fifa confederations. Predecessor, “the disgraced Sepp Blatter” (to give him his full title), distanced himself from them, as if they weren’t Fifa’s constituent parts. By contrast, Infantino is keeping very quiet about trying to control them.

Patronage was Blatter’s main campaigning strategy. Infantino’s likewise. The 48-team World Cup idea has undergone almost no relevant scrutiny. Logistics and cost would not appear to be issues, to judge by the timetable Infantino has set for, he claims, “ideas to find the best solution.” No other “ideas” have been publicised and it is unclear what problem needs “best” solving. Yet Infantino said: “We will debate them this month and…decide everything by 2017,” reportedly January 2017. Fifa’s governing Council meets in Zurich on October 13th and 14th and again in January. It is difficult to imagine the many attendant issues being adequately addressed by then. Will Council members will receive a technical report, like the one Fifa’s Executive Committee (ExCo) ignored before choosing Qatar as 2022 World Cup hosts? Unlikely. Because allowing 23% of Fifa’s member associations a World Cup finals’ spot is pure politicking; The “Blatter playbook.” Chapter One.

Way back when Infantino advocated a 40-team World Cup (September 29th), he told an African Football Confederation (CAF) General Assembly: “Let’s give Africa the place it deserves in world football. Africa will benefit most from a proposed increase in the football investment programme. It is my wish that a 40-team World Cup will have at least two more slots for Africa. CAF must support FIFA to make this possible.” Blatant stuff. And Infantino isn’t just vote-gathering for his re-election. He wants the same staff of “yes-men/women” as Blatter. Except Blatter formed a “parallel administration” to run “his” Fifa affairs his way. Infantino wants “his” people running “his” Fifa affairs without a parallel administration. This isn’t necessarily unreasonable. However, Infantino has been gathering “his” people with consistent disregard for due process. Secretary-General Fatma Samoura’s shock appointment should not have been a shock. It was a sign of things to come.

Infantino’s “involvement” in Uefa’s presidential election raised eyebrows bigger than his. Unheralded Slovenian Aleksander Ceferin’s landslide victory was set up by some unfeasibly early and organised support from Northern and Eastern Europe FAs. Infantino’s “role” was indirect and, naturally, denied. However, eyebrows have also been raised by another Slovenian appointment. Those pesky journalists from Norwegian magazine Josimar went digging again. And they discovered irregularities with July’s appointment of Slovenian state auditor Tomaz Vesel to chair Fifa’s Audit and Compliance Committee (A&CC), replacing Domenico Scala, with whom Infantino famously argued over presidential salaries and committee independence. Vesel’s “independence” was stressed in his appointment announcement; his future independence as A&CC chair and the “full” independence of Slovenia’s “Court of Auditors,” over which he presides. However, neither Fifa’s announcement nor the linked personal profile, mentioned his five years’ service, two as deputy chairman, on the Slovenian FA’s (NZS) Youth Committee.

Vesel’s appointment thus breached Fifa regulations, introduced in February among the reforms which heralded Fifa’s “new” era. Josimar asked. on September 22nd, Was Tomaž Vesel ineligible as chairperson of the Audit & Compliance Committee? Because Fifa’s Governance regulations forbid any “chairman or deputy chairman of its independent committees” from holding “any official function at a national or confederation level, including the four years previous to initial term.” Josimar “checked with Ludovic Deléchat at Fifa’s legal division” for “exceptions to this rule.” Deléchat said: “None whatsoever.” They asked Vesel whether he told Fifa of his NZS role when required. He said he “had reported that fact” during “the process of his eligibility check” and that the role was “strictly advisory.” But on September 23rd, one day after being asked about Vesel’s eligibility and appointment process, Fifa published “new” guidance on the issues. Eligibility checks, suddenly, considered “the character of the positions held by the candidates, in particular if the positions…were purely advisory.”

Did Fifa re-interpret their rules because they were questioned? The “timing might have been a co-incidence,” Josimar suggested, adding that while “the note isn’t legally binding, it has clearly trumped the Governance regulations in Vesel’s case.” Still odd, though. “Incidentally,” Infantino’s salary was announced on August 31st, by Fifa’s Compensation sub-committee, as 1.5m Swiss Francs (CHF), with bonuses from 2017 “in accordance with objective criteria related to FIFA’s mission and operations” and “the outcome of the organisational reforms.” Secretary-General Fatma Samoura’s salary was simultaneously announced. CHF1.3m and identical bonus provisions.

On February 27th, the Daily Telegraph newspaper’s Ben Rumsby wrote: “(Fifa’s compensation sub-committee) decided Infantino should earn not earn as much as his new secretary-general, with the reforms having stripped the presidency of much of its executive functions.” And the Associated Press news agency reported: “(Infantino) will have no influence over commercial contracts so will not receive bonuses.” So the “Independent Compensation Sub-Committee” changed policy on Infantino’s salary, for reasons still unexplained. Little wonder he recently back-tracked on suggestions that he called his CHF1.95m salary offer on March 23rd “insulting,” telling German newspaper Blick on August 28th: “the approach was insulting.” Oh… and the independent chairman of this suddenly-amenable Independent Compensation Sub-committee? Tomaz Vesel.

Things went against Infantino’s “independent” committees at an “extraordinary” (in every sense) Asian Football Confederation Congress in Goa on September 27th. The Congress, held to elect three AFC members to Fifa’s Council, lasted mere minutes, after delegates voted down the agenda 42-one, with one abstention. The protest was against Qatari FA vice-president Saoud Al-Mohannadi’s removal from the Council election ballot the day before Congress. An AFC statement read: “Based on the report of the Investigatory Chamber of the Fifa Ethics Committee, Fifa has decided Mr Saoud A.Aziz Al-Mohannadi (Qatar) is not eligible to stand in the elections…” The referenced Ethics committee report appeared on August 26th, a month before Al-Mohannadi’s ineligibility was announced. It said their investigation “concerned his failure to properly cooperate and provide truthful information…in the framework of another investigation not related to the awarding of the 2022 FIFA World Cup.”

Investigation “chief,” the Chamber’s deputy chairman Djimbaraye Bourngar, recommended a ban of “no less than” thirty months and a fine of “no less than CHF20,000” for “alleged violations of three articles of Fifa’s Ethics Code, including “duty of disclosure (and) co-operation” and a “general obligation to collaborate.” However, Al-Mohannadi passed Fifa’s eligibility checks. And the report concluded, customarily: “Until a formal decision is taken…the accused party is presumed innocent.” It is unclear who within Fifa misunderstood/disregarded that last sentence. And it is equally unclear why the decision to declare Al-Mohannadi ineligible took until the eve of Congress. Especially as proceedings against him reportedly started on September 6th. An almost universally dischuffed Congress displayed their dissatisfaction with Fifa in the clearest, strongest possible manner.

It was no surprise to AFC president Bahrain’s Sheikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al-Khalifa, whose prepared statement from the Congress chair thanked delegates for their “strong message that we stand united. The message has been clear to everyone inside and outside Asia.” “Everyone” included the attending Infantino, who spun the debacle as part of the “reform process” in Fifa and the confederations, adding unconvincingly: “This takes discussions, this takes time, this takes meetings, this takes postponements of meetings as well.”  The AFC ExCo later added Chinese Council election candidate Zhang Zian to their number until the reconvened Congress, hinting at the true political conflict. For ordinary delegates such as Hong Kong FA CEO Mark Sutcliffe, the issue was “not about an individual, but about following correct electoral process,” and “should have been resolved ages ago and not on the eve of congress.”

However, more cynical observers, such as relentlessly anti-Infantino website Insideworldfootball (IWF), recognised another Blatter playbook move. As Paul Nicholson wrote on September 26th: “Rumour has long been that FIFA have been ‘selecting’ officials for the FIFA Council using ethics rules and its ethics departments as a blunt tool.” “This is the second time in four months,” Nicholson suggested, “that FIFA has stepped into a confederation election and altered the way a vote looked to be going.” He cited May’s presidential election in North/Central American confederation Concacaf, where Antigua’s Gordon Derrick was barred on a technicality. That election was won by Canada’s Victor Montagliani, a VERY rare supporter of Infantino’s 48-team World Cup.

Nicholson added: “Insiders say that FIFA’s hierarchy” wanted “Iranian Ali Kafashian Naeni and Singapore FA president Zainudin Nordin in those seats, they both voted for Infantino in the presidential election.” But the widely-reported favourites were Al-Mohannadi and Zhang Jian. Meanwhile, Fifa’s Council will meet in depleted form this week, three Asians short. Josimar reported on October 4th that Infantino is again under Ethics Committee investigation, this time concerning the €4m loan to the NZS who, Josimar reported on September 20th, spent €3.6m acquiring shares in Slovenian betting company Sportna Loterija. With the NZS’s annual turnover only €17m, Josimar claimed the loan at least enabled the share purchase, with Infantino among those who “approved and signed (it) off.” However, even the anti-Infantino IWF claimed “there is no evidence that Infantino personally signed off the deal.”

Still, Infantino’s first “brush” with the Ethics Committee suggests he has little to fear. And rather than undermining theories that he uses ethics machinery for political means, these “investigations” are a blatant PR-response to genuine concerns about his conduct. On August 5th Fifa announced that formal investigations had cleared Infantino of ethics breaches without announcing that they had even started. Fifa “explained,” this secrecy was “to ensure independent, unimpaired and focused proceedings.” A privilege rarely afforded non-presidents. But careful reading revealed a more nuanced picture than Infantino painted in subsequent PR-exercises, such as the afore-mentioned August 28th Blick interview, where he made light of the “fairytale” allegations about “several flights taken” since his election, “human resource matters relating to hiring processes” in his office, and his “refusal to sign” his Fifa employment contract. The announcement said “the human resources matters,” and Infantino’s “conduct with regard to his contract with Fifa” were “internal compliance issues” not “an ethical matter.” Hardly complete vindication, then. A matter instead for Fifa’s Audit and Compliance Committee, chaired by…ah…

The Infantino/Fifa stories look set to continue. As I typed, the worldwide-streamed press conference which traditionally followed Fifa ExCo meetings was scrapped for next week’s Council meeting, replaced by a “mixed zone,” a disorganised media scrum accessible only by journalists in Zurich, thereby limiting press scrutiny when it is needed most. Competition manipulation? Election manipulation? Committee manipulation? Media manipulation? Blatter would be so proud.

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